Stéphan Pélissier’s memoir, “I Just Wanted to Save My Family,” enlightens us by aiming an unforgivingly bright beam on the injustices engendered by the network of dark systems and practices that define governments and authoritarian figures all over the world. Unfettered nationalism. Corrupt populism. Cruel tyrannies. Stubborn bureaucracies and the frustrating red tape that characterizes them. Pélissier came face to face with all those dark realities because he dared to attempt to save his Syrian in-laws from the terrors of the government of Bashar al-Assad. The narrator/protagonist/attorney simply wanted to bring his wife’s family to France, his home.
Pélissier’s quest took him to and through Syria, Hungary, Greece, filthy prisons, and threats to his life and the lives of his in-laws. He was accused of and tried for the crime of illegally attempting to transfer immigrants without proper authorization; he was, they said, a trafficker. The details are indeed harrowing, and Pélissier is indeed a hero. He had made the difficult decision to save the lives of innocent people in dire circumstances, people whom he had grown to love. And he paid the price. Even France proved to be as serious a roadblock to his plans as the other countries and governments he was forced to deal with. Anti-immigrant rules and laws as well as the condemnable but apparently universal human flaw of fear and hatred of “the other” dogged him every step of the way. At one point near the end of his terrible adventure, he actually faced the threat of seven to fifteen years in prison. He was eventually saved from that fate party by his considerable connections to important and sympathetic government and media figures as well as his sheer determination never to give up his struggle for freedom, security, and justice. And he survived, as did his whole family.
But the tired old adage that “all’s well that ends well” certainly does not apply here. The conditions that led to the author’s frightening experiences have not abated; others, millions of others, can, do, and will continue to suffer the same indignities, the same fears, the same deadly threats to their very existence that Pélissier and especially his in-laws suffered. And what, we must wonder, would have been the fate, for example, of a person who shared his convictions and heroism but did not have access to the same influential people that the author was fortunate enough to know? And what about the continuing power of rulers like Assad and the desperate situations in scores of other nations that remain under the thumb of tyrants? The happy ending of Pélissier’s story is satisfying. But such endings are all too rare. The terror lives on.
The memoir as it stands unfortunately suffers from several flaws that detract from the power of the narrative. The language of the French-to-English translation is too often stilted and rather awkward. It “sounds” like the work of a translator who is not entirely comfortable with the common usages and rhythms of English sentence structures and phrases. Also, the edition I read is an advance uncorrected proof rife with questionable punctuation choices which one hopes will be corrected by the release date of the final edition. The editors might also consider shortening some of the sections in which the author offers detail upon detail describing his love for his beautiful wife and family. Those sections are not nearly as compelling as the descriptions of the suspenseful experiences of the family as they escape from their pursuers and the disgusting jailers, lawyers, and judges with whom they must cope. Finally, there are several chapters narrated by Pélissier’s wife and other family members wherein we must ask whether they are actually co-authors, or are their thoughts simply an expression by the author of what they were probably thinking and feeling? I actually could not determine the answer to that question from the text.
All those questions notwithstanding, the story is most certainly worth telling and deserves the most effective possible delivery. And here’s hoping also that the futures of Pélissier and his family will be entirely free of the dangers and downright horrors depicted in this potentially extraordinary memoir of an absolutely extraordinary family.
Review by Jack Kramer.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.